Paying respect to our spiritual ancestors

Tetsunori Koizumi, Director

Finding where you came from, finding your family ancestry, is an important question for the people in a country like the US, which is a relatively young country made up of immigrants. Those who know already where their ancestors came from hold annual festivals—German festivals, Irish festivals, Italian festivals and so on—to celebrate the countries and cultures of their ancestors. For those who are still trying to find out where their ancestors came from, there are many websites and commercial operations that assist them in their search. It is easy to understand why these people get excited in their search, especially when they find out that their ancestors, only two generations ago, had been eking out precarious living in distant lands before they decided to seek their fortune in the new land of opportunity.

That kind of curiosity about one’s ancestors is not found among the people in a country like Japan, which is an old country with the well-established family registry system. While the modern family registry system was established in 1872 with the birth of modern Japan, the oldest such system goes as far back as the Taika Reforms in the seventh century. Though lacking the same kind of curiosity about one’s ancestors as the Americans, the Japanese do have their own way of paying respect to their ancestors in the form of daily prayers before the family altars and annual visits to the graves of their ancestors on special occasions. One such special occasion is the Obon festival, or the festival of deceased ancestors, which happens annually from August 13 through August 16.

There is actually a good reason why this occasion is called “festival”, for people in many regions of the country celebrate this period of hot summer days with song and dance. In fact, some Obon festivals have been converted into carnival-like events that attract millions of tourists to watch local residents snake through the streets dancing and singing to the heightened sound of bells, drums and shamisens, or three-stringed Japanese lute.

Historically speaking, the Obon has been treated by the Japanese as a special occasion to pay respect to their deceased ancestors, an occasion for them to visit their family graves to pray for the spirits of their ancestors, adorning their graves with flowers. It is a time-honored custom that serves to remind the Japanese of the continuity of their lineage from grandparents to parents, and parents to children. While not known for faithful observance of their Buddhist tradition, this is one occasion when the Japanese visit Buddhist temples as their graves are usually located on the temple-grounds. The Buddhist connection of this custom would be something that Thich Nhat Hanh would be happy to see as someone who constantly reminds us that we are the continuation of our grandparents and parents, and our children and grandchildren are the continuation of us.

There is no reason why paying respect to our ancestors should be limited to our blood-related ancestors. We can actually trace the tree of life in our evolutionary past way back when we were not yet humans, as one of the characters in The Mikado, a popular opera by Gilbert and Sullivan, proclaims: “I can trace my ancestry back to a protoplasmal primordial atomic globule.” Thich Nhat Hanh, too, reminds us of our connectedness to all the other life forms and beyond: “Getting in touch with your body you see the history of life—you see your parents and your ancestors in you, not only human ancestors but also animal, plant, and mineral ancestors. They are all alive and fully present in every cell of your body. You can also see your spiritual ancestors in you. You can see Mother Earth ad Father Sun in you.”1 Paying respect to all these ancestors, human as well as non-human, in our evolutionary family relations would be an important first step towards respecting the natural environment that makes our life possible on Earth.

It is to be noted that Thich Nhat Hanh, in the above quote, also talks about “spiritual ancestors”. Who are our spiritual ancestors, then? In the case of Thich Nhat Hanh, widely admired for his accessible exposition of Buddhist thought, it is obvious who his spiritual ancestors are: “My spiritual ancestors include the Buddha, the bodhisattvas and the Buddha’s disciples. They include my own spiritual teachers, those still alive and those who have already passed away. They are present in me because they have transmitted to me seeds of peace, wisdom, love and happiness.”2 For the rest of us, our spiritual ancestors are great religious leaders who have taught us how we should conduct ourselves towards one another, great philosophers who have shown us what it means to be human, and great scientists who have shown us how our existence as a biological species depends on the delicate balance among all the systems in the universe. In a globalized, conflict-ridden world today, what we, as a human family, so desperately need is to pay respect to the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors.

  1. Thich Nhat Hanh, Inside Now: Meditations on Time, Berkeley: Parallax Press, 2015, p. 69.
  2. Thich Nhat Hanh, No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life, New York: Riverhead Books, 2002, p. 145.